Poets & Sages Behind Closed Doors

Sunlight flashes across the nursing home lobby when I enter. By degrees the brightness dims as the door swings shut. My eyes adjust to a line of wheelchairs, their occupants so still they might be in deep meditation. One woman rouses, her brown eyes searching me out. “Feet don’t work a’tall,” she says politely. “Not a lick of good.”

I walk down the hall past living koans. A man is held in a chair with padded restraints resembling a life jacket. His arms extend forward as if he is about to swim, but he doesn’t move. He repeats over and over, “I, I, I, I.”

An aide explains in a loud, cheerful tones to a woman hunched over a walker, “There is no upstairs, Dorothy. See? No elevator. We only have one floor.”

Dorothy ignores her and pushes the walker ahead. “Let’s go upstairs now,” she says.

“Show me how to get there.”

When I get to the room where my husband’s grandmother lives, she says, “There you are!” She knows me even if she can’t remember my name. Today I get her talking about childhood memories. She recalls that as the youngest of an immigrant family she had to be tough even as a little girl. “They’d beat you like they wanted salt,” she says, “but I wouldn’t cry.”

“Who beat you Grandma?”

“I’m never hungry,” she answers. “Never.”

Her roommate, who leaves the television on all day, calls out over the noise of a game show, “Ned, come over here.”

There’s no one by that name in the room. Not that I can see.

This whole nursing home feels like a living poem. But I don’t want to write about the people here. I want to write with them.

When I graduated from college I found no openings in my field. Instead I eventually found a job as a nursing home activities director. There I read the newspaper aloud every morning to a lively group of elders, soliciting their opinions and making sure to find the articles they loved to cluck over — tales of human failings. I played songs on the piano like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” for sing-alongs. I got a group of rabble-rousers together each month, named them the Residents’ Council, and helped them advocate for positive change with the administration. And I developed a local network of activity directors. We shared closely guarded secrets such as contact information for puppeteers, barbershop quartets, amateur magicians, and others willing to perform in nursing homes.

My fellow activity directors and I had the best jobs in these places. We had time to listen to the people who lived there. When I listened, really listened, I knew myself to be in the presence of poets and sages. I developed a writing program to let others hear them too. When I took the job, the facility’s monthly newsletter contained only a schedule of events, a list of birthdays, and generic health tips. But the building was home to 100 people with voices of their own. I needed to expand that publication.

I started with a column called “Tip of the Month.” Some residents didn’t know what day of the week it was or where they were, but if asked for suggestions on getting a child to behave or living within one’s means, they bubbled with advice. That column usually featured comments by dozens of residents. Many times their opinions contradicted each other, making for a livelier feature. Better yet, staff members and families implemented some of the suggestions in their own lives. When they came back and told the residents about ways they had benefited, it helped put these seniors back in their rightful position as elders with wisdom to offer.

For example:

Home Cold Remedies

“My mother used to put dry onions on my chest like a poultice. She browned them in a frying pan and put them on hot as I could take.” — Harry Pierce

“We took hot milk with ginger.” — Carmen Morales

  “My mother would rub goose grease and turpentine on our chests and put us to bed after a drink of whiskey, hot water, and sugar. Boy did we smell after that!” — Lillian Edwards

 Once I got beyond the typical “how are you feeling today?” conversational dead-end so common in nursing homes, I discovered residents whose suggestions were too long and complex to fit in Tip of the Month.” If asked to give advice for high school graduates their answers covered psychology, religion, and culture. If the question dealt with handling bullies, some people brought up international affairs, others disclosed wild personal incidents.

So I added another section to the periodical. This one centered on a different theme each month. Harvest time, first day of school, best friends, what made a good neighbor, lifelong dreams, a mother’s touch, fatherly advice, vacations. Some people brought up fragments of memories, others shared powerful insights. Nearly all of their answers illuminated a bygone era.

Preparing for Winter

“My grandfather from Hungary never drank water…Hungary had been at war and both sides poisoned the water. He never took up drinking the water again… Each year he bought a truckload of grapes and had them dumped through the basement window. We helped him make barrels of wine.” — Bill Dobscha

“Back in Ireland we’d dig up the potatoes, pick the apples, and store them away…Close to winter the pig was butchered and the meat smoked. The wheat was ground for bread and we made sure there was enough oatmeal to feed us 21 kids all winter.”  — Catherine Monally

“Only rich kids had skates, but you could slide on ice by smashing tin cans on your heels and use garbage can lids for sleds. We had fun in any weather.”  — Freda Tesar

Sometimes new staff members had difficulty telling residents apart, frustrated that stooped posture and thin white hair made the very old look alike. But stories in print gave unique perspectives on residents who spent day after day in nearly identical rooms. It also gave us more to talk about with them.

Although some people understandably found it difficult to adjust when they had to move to a nursing home, many adapted with astonishing ease to the losses represented by institutionalization—loss of identity, health, possessions, and freedom. Their contributions to the newsletter made it apparent they did so because they’d already endured great difficulty in their lives, hard lessons in impermanence.

Residents also blasted apart the sweet oldster stereotype. Some were eager to talk about their indulgences, shenanigans, even crimes. Oftentimes pain or dementia loosened the sense of propriety that had a greater lock on their generation, other times mischievousness seemed to linger right under the surface. Their willingness to reveal an edgier side accorded them new respect from the youngest people on staff.

As residents talked of the past I was struck by how dispassionate many of their accounts were. It seemed they no longer suffered over prejudice, judgment, and injustice imposed on them or that they had imposed on others. They talked with a distant tone, as if simply telling parables.

Soon I added a “Resident of the Month” feature. This gave me the luxury of listening to much lengthier oral histories. Some people told me details they didn’t want in print and we worked together to craft the material they did want published. I usually had to corroborate the facts with their files and was often surprised to find significant information they didn’t bother to mention, further evidence that stories aren’t in the data of where one lived and worked. They are in the details. Union busters coming to rough up a little girl’s coal-mining daddy and her pride in hiding his supper dishes that were on the table so no one would suspect he’d taken refuge under the front porch. A sibling dying in the night of diphtheria, and later honoring the lost child by giving one’s firstborn baby the same name. There were also tales of accomplishments, hardships, and sacrifices dismissed with the wave of a hand–“No, I never saw Mama again after I left the Old Country. That’s how it was.”

Then I started regular poetry workshops. I read poems aloud, passed around objects with relevant smells and textures, shared observations. (And served cookies. Sweets inspired many a reluctant participant.) Then I scribbled rapidly as they talked. Later I combined their words into a group poem crediting each author with his or her own line. Residents and their families seemed to prefer traditional verse so I encouraged workshop participants to work with rhyming phrases whenever possible. Some were diagnosed with dementia or suffered speech impairment due to a stroke. Though they couldn’t make coherent contributions to our other writing projects, their abilities shone in poetry.

Phrases from a resident who said the same thing over and over took on a new tenor when made into a refrain. The man who dryly commented on a topic with only three words in an hour had his contribution included. So did the woman who kept interrupting with more ideas. After our workshops I would visit other residents’ rooms to seek their input, searching out those who couldn’t attend the poetry sessions but whose impressions could make a difference. Occasionally I transcribed the words of a single resident to create an entire poem.

When residents’ words were invited, taken seriously, and written down, when I nodded and looked them in the eye, they had more to say. A lingering silence, in fact, seemed to bring ideas from a place of deep contemplation. Many times I watched someone’s gaze turn to the window, past the ubiquitous geranium. I waited. When it seemed that they’d forgotten completely they would speak gracefully, forcefully, in ways that juxtaposed symbols with objects, meaning with abstraction. Poetry.

“I’ll see you next week Grandma,” I say, leaning down to give her a hug. She seems present yet detached, like so many of my greatest teachers. I brush the hair away from her face, pat her hand, adjust her lap robe. She smiles distantly. I stand for a moment. She rouses briefly, looks at me. “Listen,” she says urgently, “the wind! The wind!”

There are no open windows, no breeze on the soundtrack of the blaring TV. So often she speaks from a place beyond logic. I want to know if it’s possible to trace her words back to meaning, but her eyes are already closed.

As I walk outside the sunlight is intense. I fumble for my sunglasses. Only then does my attention turn to my breath. The wind. The wind.

 

Originally published in The MOON Magazine.

Listening To People Without Voices

communicate with dementia patients, reading another person,

Image courtesy of polveredigrafite.deviantart.com

I got my first summer job when I was 13 years old.  My official title was “feeder.” This was my first exposure to time clocks and posted schedules. Also my first exposure to quite a bit more.

My grandparents had died a few years earlier after protracted illnesses, and like many others, I associated the sounds and smells of the unhealthy elderly with my own grief.

Before I started all I knew was that was supposed to wear a white uniform to work. On my first day I was informed my only task was to spoon-feed patients unable to feed themselves. The head nurse handed me a list of names with room numbers and told me I had to be done in two hours. “It doesn’t matter if you clock out late,” she said, “We aren’t paying you more than your allotted two hours.” Her swiftly delivered instructions were entirely lacking in useful information.

As I walked down the hall I discovered every resident there thought I was a nurse. Me, a girl who fell over her own feet. Me, a girl who could barely endure the sorrow of driving past a puppy chained to a tree, an unknown puppy whose imagined plight kept me upset for hours. Now I was surrounded by real plight.

Perilously frail people lined the hallway. Nearly every one of them sought my attention. They asked me to get them something urgent like a bedpan or a pill. They asked why they couldn’t go home or lie down or find something missing. They asked to simply to engage in a little conversation. I was overwhelmed.

One woman cried as she begged me to hold her hand. I smiled and nodded. As I listened to her cry I couldn’t help but steal glances at her hand’s bumpy joints and raised purple veins. I realized it had once been as strong and soft as mine. Time’s appetite made me feel as if the walls, floors, and ceiling were already collapsing.  But I had a job to perform. Surely hungry people were waiting for me. She wouldn’t let go. Not knowing what else to do, I crouched by her wheelchair there in the hallway and smiled weakly as I carefully uncurled her fingers from mine.

heart-based communication, transcending speech, speaking with people who can't speak,

Image courtesy of colinharbut.deviantart.com

The patients I was expected to feed lay hostage on narrow beds in identical rooms. Each person’s eyes stared, some directly at me and some at a place well beyond me. Trays of pureed food waited at each bedside. I had to figure out how to lower the metal bed rails in order to reach patients. I held out wavering spoonfuls of meat, potatoes, and vegetables pureed into of a nauseating mush of pale browns and olive greens. After the first patient gagged, I realized it was possible to raise a person’s head and shoulders using a crank at the foot of the bed. Like every other surface, those crank handles seemed to bristle with germs.

I was repulsed by almost everything there except for the people. I found their faces especially compelling. One of the few men on my list was hunched and fierce like a hawk, giving the impression he was ready to fly at any moment. One woman’s deep-set brown eyes were beseeching although she could say only a few garbled words. She looked at me as if she could see much more than those who walk and talk so casually could do. Another woman, whose powdery thin skin and soft clouds of white hair made her look angelic, rarely opened her eyes. When she did I felt strangely blessed. Her awake moments, although silent, felt like moments of expansive awareness.

Maybe it was a 13-year-old’s sense of drama, but I loved these people in a way I couldn’t explain. I wanted them to feel comfort and peace in the minutes we had together. I didn’t know how to accomplish that. But I started, from my first day, to ask them a question. I told them my name each time, that I was there with dinner, and then I asked them what they’d like me to know or asked what it was like to be them. And then I was quiet while I listened to whatever their silence could tell me. I knew most couldn’t hear me or answer me. But I was sure there was a reason I felt something different in the presence of each person. I felt it strongly.

Sometimes an aide would hustle into the room and sharply tell me to hurry. “No use talking to someone stone deaf” or “Ain’t nobody home in there.” But somehow these people, not fully in the stream of life and yet not departed, seemed imbued with more instead of less. They were my elders, far ahead of me in every way, and I hoped for a hint of what they knew. I wished to make my attention into an antennae to pick up whatever they might be sending.

mystical communication with the elderly, speaking to those near death, communicating with the dying,

Image courtesy of carts.deviantart.com

This is a way of communication I have continued to explore. We humans are connected by much more than language and social norms. We understand each other in far less overt ways. We entrain to one another’s heartbeats, synchronize our moods, react to the light each living cell emits, and pick up energy that some call intuition and others call morphic resonance.

It wasn’t anything I talked about then and even now it’s hard to explain. This is hardly a process unique to me, just something I am still trying learn. If I had to put it in steps, here they are.

1. Pay close attention to the other person. You may choose to look at them for as long as is comfortable, or simply to sit quietly nearby.

2. Be aware of your bodily sensations. Recognize them without making a mental effort to interpret them, at least right away. They are significant.

3. Be aware of seemingly irrelevant things that occur to you—song lyrics, flickering memories, a rush of emotion. Recognize these without making an effort to interpret them. These too are significant.

4. Slow down, staying with your awareness of the present moment. You are allowing your heart’s wisdom to enter your consciousness. Opening to understanding with your most vulnerable self, unguarded by the analytical mind, can be a way to receive such wisdom.

5. Send kindness to the other person in whatever way you can. perhaps as a quiet blanket of compassion or as waves of love. Your heart’s electrical impulse emanates several feet from your body, affecting the electrical impulse of another person’s heart within that distance. A loving heart actually transmits that sensation to people nearby. The kindness you send is received. Trust that.

6. After following this procedure through several visits you may choose to send a request from the deepest part of yourself to the other person. Then pay attention to the sensations in your own body, to whatever images and emotions arise, and to the quiet sense of knowing that seems to come from nowhere. These are a response. You may have to work hard to refrain from inserting what you think into the situation. Stay centered.

7. Honor the other person. Choose to close with a prayer, a kiss, a few minutes to rub lotion on his or her hands, or some other direct contact.

 

mystical communication, silent understanding, heart-to-heart communion, speak to the dying,

Image courtesy of kdustyk.deviantart.com

My summer as a Feeder seemed endless. I wasn’t good at my job. I realize now how badly informed I was in my position. Not only was I not instructed to raise the head of the bed, I also wasn’t told how much to feed each person or how important it was to get them to drink. I remember feeding very little to the people who looked away, closing their mouths against nourishment. I didn’t know what else to do for people who were trapped in small sweltering rooms inside barely functioning bodies. I could hardly eat that summer either. The smell of the nursing home—old urine and cooked cabbage—seemed to reappear in my nostrils at odd moments, leaving me with no appetite.

After my work was finished each afternoon I spent time listening to the patients parked in wheelchairs and those walking along the hallway handrails. They told me of tragedies. Not the wars and poverty they’d experienced but more recent sorrows— children who didn’t visit, pets gone, choices taken away. They begged me to help them in dozens of ways, every one beyond my ability. They cried. Several women there were healthy in body and mind, but had lost their homes and possessions when they recovered from supposedly terminal conditions, leaving them in institutionalized for years. One man, Joe, told me every day that he was afraid of burning in hell. He insisted he was doomed for eternity unless he could confess to a priest. With the hubris of a non-Catholic, I thought I could easily fix the problem. I told him I’d get someone to come from the Catholic church a half mile away. When I called I was told no priest would come, as a layperson conducted all required nursing home ministry tasks. The next day I asked Joe if he would confess to a layperson. He shook his head with sorrow so profound I could barely breathe.

My job was over when school started. I promised myself I would go back to visit. The faces of the people I fed rose up in my idle moments and in my dreams, but I didn’t go back. The silences I held for them became my own silence.

alzheimer's sufferers still communicate, communicate with the dying, listening to silent people,

Image courtesy of jangmai.deviantart.com

What if a man cannot be made to say anything?

How do you learn his hidden nature?

…I sit in front of him in silence,

and set up a ladder made of patience,

and if in his presence a language from beyond joy

and beyond grief begins to pour from my chest,

I know that his soul is as deep and bright

as the start Canopus rising over Yemen.

…there’s a window open between us,

mixing the night air of our beings.

Rumi 

Secret to Longevity

secret to long lifeWe humans, along with several other higher species, need elders and elders need us. From our early ancestors to today, this need is coded into our biology and shapes how we survive.

Take elephants as an example. They live in family groups led by the oldest females and walk long distances as they search for food. When the group encounters potential danger such as possible predators or unfamiliar elephants, the matriarch signals if they should continue grazing or gather into a defensive huddle. Researchers say families with the oldest matriarchs are best able to determine genuine threat.  The older the matriarch, the less energy wasted on false threats and the more calves  survive, a clear connection between wisdom of elders and success of the community.

Or take orcas. Female orcas stop reproducing around the ago of 50 and can live another 40 years. (Male orcas tend to die much sooner.)  Older females take on a leadership role. When hunting, the matriarch generally swims at the head of the pod and directs its movements, using decades of hunting experience to find elusive prey. Researcher Lauren Brent is quoted in a Smithsonian article saying,  “One way post-reproductive females may boost the survival of their kin is through the transfer of ecological knowledge. The value gained from the wisdom of elders can help explain why female killer whales and humans continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing.”

(I wonder if one of the many reasons elephants and orcas die many decades younger in captivity than they do in the wild has to do with being robbed of their essential roles as providers and wisdom-bearers.)

Which leads us to the evolutionary benefit of human grandmothers. Decades ago, anthropologist Kristen Hawkes developed what she called the “Grandmother Hypothesis.” Dr, Hawkes demonstrated (now with an updated mathematical model) that women historically live so far into their elder years because  there’s a significant survival advantage to the family when grandmothers pitch in. From the earliest roots of humanity, grandmothers gathered food, helped raise the young, and reinforced social cohesion. (In fact, field studies indicated men successfully brought meat home from the hunt less than four percent of the time while gathering by mothers and grandmothers provided the rest of the diet.)

Children whose grandmothers helped nurture them were more likely to survive, thereby  perpetuating genes that selected for women who experience mid-life menopause and vigorous old age.  Dr. Hawkes argues that grandmothers, in our evolutionary past, helped bring about bigger brains, pair bonding, even a doubling of the human lifespan. Grandmothers, she contends, make us human.

But what about grandfathers, aunts, uncles, other elders who live nearby? It seems the Grandmother Hypothesis doesn’t go far enough.  Evolutionary anthropologist Michael Gurven says increased survival and group cohesion has to do with “embodied capital” — the kind of knowledge that is acquired by experience and transmitted to others.  More effective hunting strategies and more skilled foraging is passed on by example, helping one’s people thrive.

Our very biology is rooted in and stirred by the need to protect our community. Even the sleep patterns of elders may stem from what benefits our tribe.  The dark hours have, throughout time, been the most dangerous for humans. But if we look at variations in sleep patterns across a spectrum of ages, we see why it wasn’t necessary to post sentinels at the campfire or at the doorway of the hut. Healthy old people tend to go to sleep earlier, don’t sleep as deeply, wake more easily, get up earlier, and may need less overall sleep.  Teens and young adults stay up later, sleep more deeply, and wake later.

As evidence, consider a recent study of members of a Hadza tribe living on the Tanzanian savanna. It was found that sleep variability meant at any point during the night, 40 percent of adults were wakeful and able to call an alarm if they perceived danger. Researchers call this the “poorly sleeping grandparent hypothesis.”

Today we consider the sleep habits of teens and elders aberrant compared to adults,  pathologizing variations that came to us as a legacy of ancestral strength built by diversity.

Elders need to live as long as possible in order to pass along their earned experience  to the youngest generations. But elders are valuable to a community for another evolutionary reason— essentially living on or sacrificing themselves to benefit the young. At least that’s what  theoretical biologist Josh Mittledorf  speculates in Cracking the Age CodeHe says our species long ago passed out of individual Darwinism into a sort of collective evolution as a way of protecting our communities from collapse.

According to Dr. Mittledorf, elders live longer or die younger based on biological responses to different community conditions.  Here’s how.  When times are very hard the population is at risk, particularly because it takes a great deal of exertion to get enough food to raise the young.  Elders feel the imperative to work hard and eat less for the good of their community. In many cases, they are also vitally needed to care for children.

In contrast, when times are easy the population is not at risk. Abundant food gained with less exertion means the young are likely to live to adulthood. Elders don’t feel compelled to do taxing work and they have plenty to eat. The community’s overall need is for more space to make room for an expanding population.

Let’s look at the messages an elder’s mind and body perceives in these two very different circumstances.

When times are hard, elders are needed by their families and communities. They sense they must thrive to keep their people going.  As research on aging tells us,  humans live longer in response to strenuous exertion, restricted calories, strong social connections, and a deep sense of purpose — precisely like these conditions.

But the imperative for survival may not be as strong when times are easy, food is abundant, and an elder perceives he or she isn’t essential to the family. Again, research on aging tells us that abundant food and minimal exertion, and perhaps a sense that we’re unnecessary or even in the way, leads to an earlier death.

We humans thrive when we are needed. That starts in our earliest years. Watch any toddler beam when he’s allowed to turn on the coffee grinder or run the hose over the car —- children yearn to take on real responsibility and to make a real difference to others. Strong social connections throughout life are so important that research affirms loneliness is as great a health risk as substance abuse, injury, and violence. In fact, chronic loneliness increases the chance of developing dementia by 64 percent and the risk of early death by 45 percent.  Our survival is linked to having an essential and valued role in the lives of others. 

Our whole beings know at the deepest levels that we live for one another. Time to embrace that, for the sake of our own lives and the sake of our collective lives.

“Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me. To see reality–not as we expect it to be but as it is–is to see that unless we live for each other and in and through each other, we do not really live very satisfactorily; that there can really be life only where there really is, in just this sense, love.”

~Frederick Buechner

Early Childhood Education, 1938 version

Preschool learning by doing.

Guest post by Charles Clanton Rogers, pictured here before his blogging days.

“Catch that bird! Don’t let that chicken get away, Charles!”

I was four years old, enrolled in  Grandmother’s Biology & History class.  On that morning we covered the food chain, the hunt, the kill, butchering, anatomy of a hen, and introduction to animal reproduction.

This was 1938 Oklahoma. Money was scarce for everyone. My great inherited fortune was not money, but family. I was an only child and only grandchild of a doting family. I was kind of a “prince” of an infinitely small principality consisting of five adults and one little boy.

I didn’t know it then, but the entire country was mired in the Great Depression. In our state, dust bowl conditions were destroying farms and forcing “Okies” into a desperate exodus in pursuit of California jobs.

vintage unschooling,

Farm equipment buried in dust. Image: americaslibrary.gov

Back to the morning’s Biology & History lesson. Grandma and I were “the hunters.” We caught that chicken, terminated its earthly journey, then plucked and cleaned it. I learned comparative anatomy as Grandmother identified the hen’s internal structures. She talked about the chicken and egg as a circle of life. Then she coated the pieces in egg and flour, and fried it along with fresh okra that we picked from her garden (we were the “gatherers” too). After lunch was my Music lesson, which meant Grandmother sang.

That was just the morning.

My grandmother earned supplemental income by sewing clothes for ladies in the community.  That responsibility couldn’t be neglected.  Her sewing machine was a Singer foot trade model.  She sat with both feet on the treadle. Pumping it back and forth moved a belt from the treadle up to a pulley attached to the needle mechanism. I didn’t realize it then, but observing the mechanical action was itself a Physics lesson.

oldsingersewingmachineblog.files.wordpress.com

Image: oldsingersewingmachineblog.files.wordpress.com

Grandmother would spread the material out on the floor and pin the pattern pieces. She trusted me to cut pieces around the patterns with pinking shears. I knew a mistake could cause waste and expense so I took this responsibility very seriously.

While she was making a dress, I had my own little sewing projects. I learned how to thread a needle and sew two pieces of cloth together.  It seemed like a way to pass the time, but that early sewing experience came in handy years later when I became a physician.

When I tired of sewing I passed the time with coloring books and Crayolas . I think I had 8 or 10 colors.

After dinner, Grandmother read to me. (The Little Engine That Could
was my favorite.)

Grandmother had plenty of other things to do, but whatever she was doing I was part of her team.  Often she impressed upon me that I needed to learn my lessons well, because I was going to grow up and have children and students and it would be my sacred responsibility to teach them the things she taught me just as her parents had taught her when she was a girl.

Grandmother’s love was undeniable. She certainly knew, as the poet wrote, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”

Every waking moment was an education. That suited me just fine.  It did not occur to me that the immersive learning of my early years were in any way unusual.  My “preschool/home school” didn’t have any names or labels. It was just Life. I thought it was what everyone did.

George Gershwin and DuBois Heyward wrote Porgy & Bess in 1934, my birth year. The lyrics of its immortal song, Summertime, could have been the theme of my preschool years:

One of these mornings you’re gonna rise up singing,

And you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky,

But ’til that morning, there ain’t nothin’ can harm you….

hush little baby, don’t you cry.

 

I became acquainted with retired physician and teacher Charles Clanton Rogers when he commented on one of my posts. Charles enjoyed writing about history, science, art, and music, but my favorites among his work described living with a sense of astonishment. As he wrote,  “I have an idea of what it is like to experience life before a thing is known; and then to witness its deployment. ” I rarely offer guest posts but when I asked, he gladly shared glimpse of a lovingly guided early education with us. This lovely man recently passed away and I still miss our lively exchanges.  

Do Brain Training Games Work?

Nurturing neurons

Nurturing neurons

We listen to a lot of public radio in my house. Shows like RadiolabThis American Life, and Science 360  make chores go faster and often lead to great conversations. But I bristle every time I hear another sponsorship slogan by a certain program underwriter. It goes something like this: “Lumosity, the brain training program to improve memory and performance, for life.”

Every time I hear it, I think of my dad’s experience. My father moved back to his childhood hometown when he was in his seventies. He was delighted to run across people he’d known decades earlier. They recognized him, asked about his family, reminisced about his mother (who’d been a popular high school teacher), and shared stories of their own lives. It was an absolute thrill for him. He felt rooted, more truly at home than he’d felt for years. “Who you are,” he told me, “is all in what you remember.”

The most gut-wrenching part of moving back, for my dad, was meeting up with his old friend Mitchell.* Our language doesn’t yet have a word for the moment when any of us meets up with someone we’ve known for years, only to realize the other person is suffering from dementia.

Developing dementia of any sort was my father’s worst nightmare. He read every article on prevention and subscribed to various journals so he could keep up with the latest Alzheimer’s disease research. He modified his already stringent diet and intensified his rigorous memory preservation efforts; influenced, in part, by advertisements from “brain training” companies that relentlessly targeted his age group.

He’d recently and very happily remarried, sang in the church choir, went on bike rides, was an enthusiastic bird watcher and gardener. But he’d turn down going to lunch with friends and skip interesting programs at the senior center because he prioritized brain training. He memorized sequential pictures and lists of words, did math problems and crossword puzzles, and clicked through brain training programs for hours every day. He couldn’t have known that his active life would suddenly be cut short by an aneurysm. I’m still saddened by the time he spent indoors hunched over a computer screen instead of letting himself more fully engage in life’s pleasures.

Here’s what’s particularly galling. Experts tell us that more frequent social activities (like the ones my dad kept skipping) offer a protective effect. Studies show that a larger network of regular social contacts is associated with better semantic and working memory well into old age.

Do brain training programs offer similarly protective effects? Not even close.

As the population ages, more and more people are trying to ward off cognitive decline by using brain games like Brain HQ, Dakim Brain Fitness, My Brain Trainer, and of course, Lumosity. (Over 70 million people use Lumosity, many paying $15 a month.) Customers are assured that such programs will improve memory and thinking skills. They’re told these games are backed by scientific evidence. In fact, Lumosity‘s site lists a number of studies.

Those studies, however, may only tangentially relate to the product or cannot be replicated by more exacting researchers. Some of this research is conducted by individuals or institutions with financial links to brain training companies.

And here’s the thing: Improvements in game scores don’t really translate into better cognitive functioning in daily life, especially long-term, even though that’s what motivates people to play in the first place.

A few years ago, the Alzheimer’s Society teamed up with the BBC to launch the Brain Test Britain study. Over 13,000 people participated. The results weren’t promising. People under 60 got better at individual games, but their overall mental fitness didn’t improve. An expanded study to test those over 60 is still being analyzed, but it doesn’t sound like breaking news either.

Sure, players will improve their scores on games they enjoy, but if time spent playing subtracts from other more beneficial activities, it’s time squandered. There’s also worry that when brain training customers believe these games protect them from dementia, they may be less likely to eat right, get enough exercise, and pay attention to other means of prevention.

Scientists are speaking up about this. A joint statement titled “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community” was released last year by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The 70 scientists who participated summed it up this way,

We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline.

All of us are used to companies stretching the truth in order to get more customers. But we live at a time when one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.  It’s estimated that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease will triple in the next 40 years.  (I’m going to be pretty old in 40 years. I bet you will be too.) It’s particularly heinous when companies exploit very realistic fears. When trusted news outlets accept money from these companies, that’s when I turn off the radio.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Update. The creators of Lumosity have agreed to pay the Federal Trade Commission a 2 million dollar fine for lying to customers. “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”

Start a Playgroup in a Retirement Home

seniors and kids, retirement home preschool,

Image: bjwebbiz

I started a playgroup, years ago, that met in a nursing home. Later, when I wrote an article offering six ways we can bypass today’s age-segregation to more fully involve children in their communities, I started the article with the tale of that playgroup. Readers keep asking for more details so they can organize something similar. Here’s my tale again, this time with some helpful hints. 

Surely my baby was as good as a dog.

I’d read that nursing home residents benefited enormously from contact with therapy dogs. During and after dog visits these elders were more alert and happier. So I figured, why not bring my baby to a nursing home?

Initially I’d thought about going room to room with my baby for one-on-one visits. But as I sat at a LeLeche meeting, it occurred to me that more babies might offer a bigger boost.

So I contacted a nursing home around the corner to ask. The administrator had never heard of such an idea but she was wildly enthusiastic. She referred me to the home’s activity director to start planning. That was the easiest part.

Then I starting talking friends with babies into forming a nursing home-based playgroup for our infants and toddlers. It took a LOT of convincing on my part to get them to agree. They were afraid of germs, smells, and their baby’s reactions to people with obvious disabilities.

I wondered about those problems too, particularly the germs. I know that some pretty virulent infections can get passed around in such facilities. So I talked a local store into donating a large carpet remnant for our little ones to crawl and play on. Between visits, the nursing home could roll it up for storage. It was a sort of “safe zone’ so parents felt their kids wouldn’t be exposed to germs or unwanted touching by the seniors.

I also told the staff that I’d call each day before a scheduled playgroup to ensure there weren’t any colds, flu, or other infections going around. And of course, asked that any individual residents who seemed ill would not attend. Parents also agreed to skip a session if they or their little ones seemed at all ill.

The first few playgroup sessions tested us. Not the nursing home residents, but the parents. There were, quite honestly, some seniors whose disabilities seemed a bit scary to us at first. But the babies didn’t care. Safely in a mom’s arms or in her lap they smiled, cooed, and waved to the residents with complete acceptance.

Parents brought a few toys each time and we all sat on the carpet with our babies. At first we felt a little like a zoo exhibit with a ring of wheelchairs around us, but that feeling went away. The elders were clearly delighted simply to see and hear babies.

There were certainly problems getting our group established. We started off with three mothers, one grandmother, and four babies. That’s actually a good number, although to keep the playgroup going we’d need enough people so that absences by one or two members wouldn’t whittle the session down too far.

Quite a few of the parents who initially said they’d attend just couldn’t bring themselves to show up. Only after they heard some glowing reports did a few of them give it a try. Honestly, such a playgroup isn’t for everyone. There’s a distinct pleasure in a playgroup itself, but parents who stayed committed also looked at our sessions as volunteer work.

We met regularly at that nursing home for several years. We held up picture books and read aloud to an audience old and young. We sang songs, played clapping games, and built block towers. Our babies grew into toddlers, elders and staff became our friends. Residents’ families and staff members often told us that our visits stimulated memories, generated activity, even inspired people who were mostly mute to say a few words. One woman who had refused to eat, doing little more than cry since her stroke, started eating again after spending the morning with our playgroup.

We were awed that the simple presence of babies made a difference. Just sitting on the carpet playing with our children helped people whose once full lives were now constricted. We benefited too. We learned the value of advice given by people older than our grandparents. We noticed how completely our toddlers accepted the physical and mental differences around them with natural grace. And we gained a sense of connection across the generations, a sense that’s far too rare in a a disengaged culture.

Tips

I had a ready pool of potential parents in my Le Leche group, but you can post information about the idea to all sorts of places, from your food co-op to house of worship. Try a local parent group, start a playgroup Meetup, find a chapter of the Holistic Moms Network or Moms Club.

Don’t be afraid to start a playgroup with only a friend or two. It’ll grow. Once you’re comfortable and have established a routine, start sharing your experiences on social media. And don’t forget traditional media. Our local paper wrote a short piece about our nursing home-based playgroup and ran a great picture of a profoundly wrinkled lady smiling at a baby. After that ran we had up to 12 parents who came to our sessions (the carpet piece was barely big enough).

You may prefer to organize a playgroup at an assisted living facility or senior center rather than a nursing home. These elders are healthier and much more able to engage in conversation with the kids.

Don’t limit yourself to the concept of a baby/toddler playgroup. A nearby senior center or assisted living facility may agree to set up any number of programs. Here are a few ideas.

  • I write in Free Range Learning about several initiatives such as a skills clinic where seniors offer workshops to kids, and Girlfriend Circle where a girls attend a monthly tea party with seniors.
  • Set up co-learning events, where kids and seniors together learn something new to them like whittling, cartooning, or pot throwing.
  • You might also start a program for preteens and teens to teach their elders tech skills, from downloading music to mastering a new smart phone.
  • Right now a documentary about a preschool housed in a retirement home is in the works. Present Perfect is still raising funds on Kickstarter for post production.
  • A senior retirement community not far from me offers a free apartment to music students who agree to offer concerts. It’s working beautifully.
start nursing home playgroup, preschool in retirement home,

Image: bjwebbiz

Are You Eccentric?

Being yourself. (image: Irish_Eyes)

Being yourself. (image: Irish_Eyes)

I met Betty years ago when I moved to a place teeming with all sorts of progressive people. Still, Betty stood out. She was a large lady dressed in layers of brightly colored clothes who walked with the help of a carved walking stick. Because her eyesight was so poor she often asked for help reading street signs. I was the lucky person she asked one day.

We hit it off immediately, riffing on words and laughing wryly about politics. But when I made a banal comment (probably about the weather or something equally trite) Betty wanted none of it. She asked why I bothered to say it. While I was busy thinking about her question she moved on to far more fascinating topics. Her honestly was more overt than the huge pendant dangling around her neck. I admired her for it. I was newly married at 18, attending college full time, plus working and volunteering. Sometimes I felt as if I were playacting in all these unfamiliar roles. Simply by example Betty made it clear that playacting didn’t cut it.

Until her last days Betty was a fascinating woman. She could talk knowledgeably about religion, politics, and literature as well as motorcycle racing and vintage cars. She read avidly even though her poor eyesight forced her to hold a book inches away from her face. Known in the area as a white witch, she cast spells for many notable people and organizations. (Her attempts on behalf of the Cleveland Indians to lift the Curse of Rocky Colavito weren’t one of her successes.) In the early 2000’s the city of Lakewood asked her to clean up what they considered an overgrown yard. When an inspector showed up she walked him through her herb gardens, explaining what each plant could cure. Perhaps she was never cited for those unruly gardens because she gave him a homemade insomnia remedy.

The truly eccentric people I know don’t try to stand out. They don’t affect certain behaviors, clothes, or interests in order to be seen as non-conformists. They do their best to live in a world of conventions while simply being themselves.

We live in a marvelous time, when we’re far freer to be who we are than perhaps in any other time in history. That’s great for us as individuals but also great for humanity, since eccentrics seem to play a larger role than others in advancing exploration, the arts, and sciences. Their differences stretch the possibilities for all of us.

In Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness,  psychiatrist David Weeks explains that eccentrics are physically healthier and significantly happier than “normal” people. He notes that eccentrics are wildly diverse yet share common characteristics. Here are his 25 descriptors of eccentricity, listed in descending order of importance. (Dr. Weeks says the first five are the most significant characteristics.)

  • Enduring non-conformity
  • Creativity
  • Strongly motivated by an exceedingly powerful curiosity and related exploratory behavior
  • An enduring and distinct feeling of differentness from others
  • Idealism
  • Happily obsessed with a number of long-lasting preoccupations (usually about five or six)
  • Intelligent, in the upper fifteen per cent of the population on tests of intelligence
  • Opinionated and outspoken, convinced of being right and that the rest of the of the world is out of step with them
  • Non-competitive
  • Not necessarily in need of reassurance or reinforcement from the rest of society
  • Unusual eating habits and living arrangements
  • Not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except perhaps in order to persuade them to their contrary point of view
  • Possessed of a mischievous sense of humor, charm, whimsy, and wit
  • More frequently an eldest or an only child
  • Eccentricity observed in at least 36% of detailed family histories, usually a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. (It should be noted that the family history method of estimating hereditary similarities and resemblances usually provides rather conservative estimates.)
  • Eccentrics prefer to talk about their thoughts rather than their feelings. There is a frequent use of the psychological defense mechanisms of rationalization and intellectualization.
  • Slightly abrasive
  • Midlife changes in career or lifestyle
  • Feelings of “invisibility” which means that they believe other people did not seem to hear them or see them, or take their ideas seriously
  • Feel that others can only take them in small doses
  • Feel that others have stolen, or would like to steal, their ideas. In some cases, this is well-founded.
  • Dislike small talk or other apparently inconsequential conversation
  • A degree of social awkwardness
  • More likely to be single, separated, or divorced, or multiply separated or divorced
  • A poor speller, in relation to their above average general intellectual functioning

See yourself here? A family member or friend?

The documentary “A Different Drummer” highlights people more overtly unusual than Betty. In fact, Dr. Weeks claims only one in 10,000 people are truly eccentric. I suspect the number is much higher.

Sure, some eccentrics are more flamboyant than others but I think the Bettys of the world qualify. So does a toddler obsessed with vacuums who grew into a little boy driven to fix broken appliances and equipment he rescued from the trash. So does a girl so fascinated by forensics that she spent weeks sketching the decomposition of a muskrat and recently assembled an entire deer skeleton in the driveway. So do many of the interesting people around all of us. My family tree is well leafed out with eccentrics and my friends are orchards of eccentricity. Maybe I’m eccentric too. How about you?

are you eccentric?

What gorilla suit? (image:Greyerbaby)

Response to Kids’ Misbehavior: “Good Old Days” vs. Now

older generation of kids, historical comparison of children,

Learning from earlier generations. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Unable to find a job in my field after college, I ended up working as a nursing home activity director. It was the best job in the place. Unlike overworked staff in other departments, I had time to form real relationships with the residents. This was 25-some years ago (yes, I’m that old). Our 100 bed unit was brimming with people too frail to care for themselves but most were otherwise mentally acute. (Not one patient with today’s unnecessary plague, Alzheimer’s disease.)

These elders were in their 80’s and 90’s, born around the 1900’s or slightly before, and always happily reminisced with someone willing to listen. They were extraordinary teachers and gave me perspectives I could have encountered nowhere else. One angle new to me was how differently childhood was viewed by adults back when they were growing up.

Kids worked hard then. They were expected to do heavy chores at home as well as work on the family farm or family business. Some even held jobs in factories. But when their obligations were over they were entirely free. They roamed the streets or woods with their peers, improvised games, put on their own skits and plays, made playthings like twig whistles and soapbox cars, built forts, swung from vines into swimming holes, and indulged in make-believe well into their early teens. They skirted around the adult world in a realm of their own, as children have done throughout human history.

criminalizing children, school-to-prison pipeline,

Costumed kids, skit to come. (image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries)

I’m not implying that childhood was remotely easy back then. Aside from hard work there seemed to be very little recognition of a child’s emotional needs. Worse, it was a time of blatant racial, gender, ethnic, and class discrimination. But I’d like to point out that when these elders were kids back in 1910’s and 1920’s many of them caused real trouble. Here are a few of the more extreme stories they told me.

Halloween was a holiday with no real adult involvement or interest. That night kids of all ages went out trick-or-treating, knowing they weren’t likely to get a treat (cookie or apple) from most neighbors. Preteens or teens often played tricks to retaliate. Soaping windows was the mildest trick they described. Most were much worse. Wooden steps were pulled away from doors, gravestones left in yards, pigs let out of pens, fires set in dry cornfields ready for harvest, water pumped into basements. One man told me he and his friends put an elderly widow’s buggy on top of her back porch roof. It wasn’t till a few days later that her plight was noticed and someone strong enough to help could get it down. A common Halloween prank was lifting an outhouse a foot or so to the side. In the dark, an unsuspecting person heading out to use it was likely to fall into the hole.

A 14-year-old stole whiskey from a bootlegger and got shot at as he ran off. Another bootlegger was blamed and never seen again.

A 15-year-old took her older sister’s papers booking passage on a ship to the U.S., saying her sister could better look after their family back home. Once she arrived, she worked as a cook for a family that paid for the ticket, answered to her sisters name, married under that name, and gained citizenship under that name. Her sister used the same name back in Ireland all that time.

There were plenty of other stories. Public drunkenness, fist fights that turned into brawls, runaways who rode the rails and runaways who got married against their parents’ wishes, shoplifting, breaking into school offices to change grades and steal tests, and one story of a school riot over a change in dismissal time.

These people suffered no appreciable consequences from authorities.

Not. One. Of. Them.

Their parents were certainly angry if they found out. The usual punishment? More chores. If police were informed they gave the kids a talking to, in the most extreme cases put them in the back of a squad car for a more serious talking to at the police station. No charges. No jail time. No record of their misdeeds beyond a local cop’s memory. Back then, it was assumed that kids would grow out of it.

All of these people grew up to work stable jobs and own homes. Most were married until death parted them from their spouses. One was a judge, one a career military officer, several were in the skilled trades, several others were business owners, many were homemakers and tireless volunteers, nearly all were proud parents of highly accomplished children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Yet today’s kids are being criminalized.

I’m not for a moment defending any young person’s impulse to wreak mayhem at home or in the community. I am saying that today’s response to (far less drastic) behaviors common during any child’s growing up years is appalling.

These days armed officers roam schools in thousands of districts. Studies show their presence doesn’t actually improve safety. Instead, children are often treated like criminals for common disciplinary issues such as yelling, swearing, or pushing. Here are a few of the more extreme examples.

A seventeen-year-old girl spent 24 hours in jail for truancy. This honors student works two jobs to help support her family and can’t always get to school.

A six-year old boy and avid Cub Scout was suspended for five days after bringing to school his Cub Scout eating utensil containing a fork, spoon, and knife. Due to public pressure, the school board voted to spare him the other punishment he’d received: 45 days in reform school.

A thirteen-year-old boy was handcuffed, arrested, and transported from school to a Juvenile Detention Center although his parents weren’t notified. His crime? He “burped audibly” in gym class.

A twelve-year-old girl was arrested for doodling on a desk with a green marker.

A seventeen-year-old boy who broke up a fight between two girls was shot with a taser by a deputy on duty at the school. The young man suffered a brain hemorrhage, spent 67 days in intensive care, and remains brain injured. The officer wasn’t charged due to lack of evidence.

The Guardian interviewed Deborah Fowler, who authored a 200-page study of the consequences of policing in Texas schools. They report,

…most schools do not face any serious threat of violence and police officers patrolling the corridors and canteens are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behavior.

What we see often is a real overreaction to behavior that others would generally think of as just childish misbehavior rather than law breaking,” said Fowler. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class,” which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behavior within 500 ft of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise.”

Minority students are much more likely to be disciplined, fined, or arrested than white students in what’s being called the school-to-prison pipeline. Huge corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and smaller companies like AIM Truancy Solutions lobby for get-tough policies that bring them big profits in tax-payer money.

In some states tickets are issued, even in primary grades. These citations may compel the student to appear in court to face sentences including fines, court costs, and mandatory participation in remedial programs. This means the child is now entered into the judicial system, with police or court records that may or may not be sealed. If students don’t appear or their families can’t afford the fines, an arrest warrant may automatically be issued when they turn 17. This means childish misbehavior can follow young people into their adult lives. There’s a common question on applications for college, the military, and employment “Have you ever been charged with a crime?”  The answer, for these kids, is “yes.”

Heavy-handed tactics used against children may get worse very soon. School districts in 22 states including Texas, California, Florida, Kansas, and Utah are participating in a federal program which provides military surplus to local law enforcement organizations. We’re talking gear like assault rifles, extended magazines, military vehicles, and other weapons intended for combat.

What happened to free range childhood? Why do we act as if every choice a child makes must be the correct one? That risks are always too risky? That freedom of any kind equals danger?

The goal of creating high-achieving young people through unremitting scrutiny, at times backed up by force, is wrong. But today’s treatment of young people isn’t even based on evidence. Ask any high-achieving adult about their youthful high jinks. Better yet, ask the oldest people still left to us. A long look back may be the cure we need.

“We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.”  inscription in an Ancient Egyptian tomb

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless… When I was young we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly unwise and impatient.”   -Hesiod, 8th century BC 

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.”   -Peter the Hermit, sermon preached 1274 AD

what your great-grandparents did, oral history,

What our elders can tell us. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Angry Stranger’s Gift

angry stranger, gift of impatience, tolerance, soul moment,

Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.

I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.

The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.

I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.

Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.